It’s been nearly 150 years since the end of slavery in the US, yet one still sees the institution’s imprint everywhere in America.
In solemn tribute to the nine people gunned down at a Charleston church, two flags atop the Statehouse in Columbia SC were lowered to half-staff on Thursday and will stay there for nine days in honor of each victim.
But a Confederate battle flag on statehouse grounds is still flying high. And it isn’t an oversight. It’s because of state law, which says it can’t be changed in any way without a sign-off from the South Carolina General Assembly.
The flag—as well as other historically named icons and places—is legally protected under the 2000 South Carolina Heritage Act. The battle flag continues to draw criticism from South Carolinians who say it keeps the symbol of slavery and the Civil War alive.
The head of the NAACP says it’s not appropriate for South Carolina to keep flying the battle flag at its Statehouse. “The flag has to come down,” NAACP President Cornell Brooks told a crowd gathered for a midday news conference last Friday. “This was not merely a mass shooting, not merely a matter of gun violence,” Brooks said. “This was a racial hate crime, and must be confronted as such.”
A symbol of the Confederate battle flag was on the car that police say Dylann Roof, 21, drove to Charleston’s historic Emanuel AME Church Wednesday, before opening fire on those gathered for a Bible study meeting. A photo of Roof on social media shows him wearing symbols of the flags of apartheid-era South Africa and white-ruled Rhodesia.
Roof was captured Thursday and arraigned Friday afternoon, in a court proceeding that included emotional statements from the victims’ family members.
Speaking in Charleston Friday, Brooks acknowledged that some people view the Confederate battle flag as part of history and regional heritage. But he said: “When we see that symbol lifted up as an emblem of hate, as a tool of hate, as an inspiration for hate, as an inspiration for violence—that symbol has to come down, that symbol must be removed from our state capitol.”
Arguments over South Carolina’s display of the Confederate battle flag have raged for decades. The Charleston City Paper describes the most recent developments: “The NAACP has been calling for tourists and businesses to boycott the state for years due to the flying of the flag. In 2000, activists won a small compromise by having the flag removed from the Statehouse dome and placed atop a memorial to Confederate soldiers on the Statehouse grounds. However, the flag remains highly visible; it is the first thing you see as you approach the Statehouse from the north on Main Street.”
How about a little more compromise? Replace the battle flag with the first flag of the Confederacy—the “Stars and Bars”—on the Statehouse grounds and elsewhere. This would be a way to honor Southern heritage without seeming to condone the racism that the battle flag implies. If White Supremacists want to continue displaying the battle flag on their pickup trucks and at Klan rallies, let them do so. This is still a country which defends everyone’s right to free speech, however offensive.
But state governments need not be gratuitously offensive under the cloak of ‘honoring Southern heritage.’ This would be like requiring that a swastika flag be flown over Tel Aviv. Anyway, the American Civil War ended 150 years ago. Isn’t it high time that we stop glorifying that fratricidal carnage and make peace among all Americans?
PS: When I decided to do this post over the weekend, I had no idea the question of the Confederate battle flag would so dominate Monday’s news. As I reviewed the furor, one of the most illuminating pieces was this interview of a North Carolina professor who said that the use of the battle flag originated in the ’50s and ’60s as an act of defiance following the Supreme Court’s order that the schools be desegregated.
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